Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry

First read: Early 2004
Reviewed on: 5/2/2004
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

This book really brought home the difference between the problem drinker, the habitual drinker, and the alcoholic. The problem drinker is the guy who always is drinking too much. The habitual drinker is the guy who, for example, always opens a beer when he gets home from work before he takes his shoes off. And the alcoholic? I've known plenty, and they've annoyed me, but this book really went into what it is like to be an alcoholic. Geoffrey Firmin is always just plain thinking about alcohol. If he's drinking, he's thinking about how many he is going to have. If he walks into a room, he kind of checks to see where the liquor is, and wonders how long it is until he can ask for a drink. The guy is just obsessed with alcohol.

Maybe AA has the wrong approach? They take people who are obsessed with alcohol, put them in rooms, and have them talk about alcohol for extended periods. Isn't going to regular AA meetings continuing to let alcohol rule your life?

I don't claim to be an expert, but I have an analogous situation with food. I once made a member of my improv troupe laugh out loud during a formal occasion. (We were at some official conference, waiting to be the entertainment. There were many speeches.) After dinner, the troupe was listening to the speeches, probably thinking about our upcoming show. Wayland happened to look at what I had written on my legal pad: "...suddenly it dawns on Doctor Shaw that he is not going to be getting pie." He lost it.

But it's true. I think about food far too much. It isn't that I overeat (I do) and it isn't that I have too many snacks (I do) that is killing me, but it is that when I'm not eating, I'm wondering when I next get to eat. When I don't have dessert, I am making a choice. "I am not going to have dessert." Other, normal human beings, don't make the choice of Not Having Dessert, it just doesn't even occur to them to order pie after having breakfast.

I'm so glad I shared that bit of information with you, let me tell you.

Let's go to the book. Under The Volcano was a dreadful, painful, read that gave you insight into the mind of an alcoholic at the price of making you want to take a sharpie marker, scribble on the pages, and then plunge it into your eyes, just to alleviate the boredom you are experiencing while reading it. I started this book in December, and it took me until now to read it. At one point I lost it (left it in the Bryant-Lake Bowl theater in Minneapolis) and had to buy another copy - boy, that's so much fun, buying a second copy of a book you hate. I think this took me longer to finish than Ulysses. Lord knows, I'm not a fan of Ulysses, but at least I have some degree of pseudo-intellectual-stud-value for having read that. This book left me with nothing but 5 lost months of life and a desire to go to the Chinese Buffet for lunch. There was one tolerable part in the middle, a flashback about the protagonist's brother which is nice because it is a vacation from the protagonist. The end was nice, because the protagonist gets in physical danger and you get the fun of yelling "Die! Die! Die!" at the top of your lungs as you read it, hoping for the worst, hoping it is painful.

You want to feel depressed about a soured relationship? Go see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Want to experience alcoholism? Go to an AA meeting. Dear reader, I don't know much about you. But trust me... you still have hope. Don't make the same mistake I made. Go! Do something you enjoy! You have so many things you can do with your life! Don't throw precious hours away by reading this shitty, shitty book. There are 99 other books on this list (okay, 97 - let's leave out Joyce) that are more worth your time. Seriously, let this one alone.

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